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What is dark comedy and why do we like it so much?

There I was, on stage, leading the entire audience and cast in a barn-burning, Christ-crunching rendition of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. It was during a cabaret about  pirates, preppy love, and this moment is one of my personal touchstones whenever I wonder: what is dark comedy?

The crowd sang along to the refrain. The cast danced behind me, doing the obligatory head bop and arms outstretched to indicate faux-crucifixion, whistling during these bits. This was a huge relief, because I was a weak whistler at best. Frankly, I worried that I was off tune, so I would make a show of pointing the microphone towards the rest of the cast – careful to avoid the speakers – to compensate.

All self-doubt aside, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the notion of dark comedy or black humor:

Life’s a piece of shit
When you look at it
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true
You’ll see it’s all a show
Keep ’em laughin’ as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you

Eric Idle sings this song in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, leading a chorus of Brian and all the other people crucified at the end of the movie. –Uhm, sorry, spoiler alert? Their heads bop and their hands and feet move in time to the chorus, “Always look on the bright side of life.” (Undoubtably, you’re now whistling the next refrain as you read this.) “Always look on the right side of life/(C’mon Brian, cheer up).”

I was lucky enough to perform this song when I was a cast member in Queen’s Players, a musical theatre group at the university I went to in Canada. I played Peter the Philosophical Pirate in our ground-breaking cabaret, Chicks Ahoy! (An Eye-Patching Cabaret: Girl-meets-boy-loses-boy-to-prepsters-pretending-they’re-pirates-in-Algonquin-Park, you know, that old saw.) The crowds always loved this number. More because of the song , or perhaps because the audience was so drunk, than my talent, but who cared? It killed!

But it was dark, man. Like, dark. Black humor. So, what is dark comedy, and why did the audience love it so much?

Introducing Vonnegut, the master of the bleak, black, dark humor

As you all know, Kurt Vonnegut is one of my great literary heroes, and he was a master of dark comedy. (Though I’ve read Vonnegut didn’t like the term any more than he liked being labeled a writer of black humor or science fiction.) He has lots to say about what dark comedy is, in essence, but I think he demonstrates it better. Take, for example, this quote from an essay he wrote for his 2005 book, A Man Without a Country:

Here’s the news: I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only twelve years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown & Williamson have promised to kill me.

But I am eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.

Did he sue? Of course not, he was making a joke. And besides, he didn’t have time because he died in shortly after the book was published.

–Wait, was that dark comedy?

Well, it was black humor, if not comedy.

Black humor is a variety of dark comedy

Black humor is also called gallows humor. It’s the kind of jokes people make when things are at their worst. Humans get through horrific circumstances as best we can. Sometimes we rise on these occasions, and sometimes we fail. (Not a typo.) But, after we have survived – because, let’s be real, when we don’t survive we can have no reaction to it – there are many ways that we can respond, ranging from succumbing to the horror to pointing out the absurdity of it. Vonnegut inclined to the latter, though he was not free from the former.

In Timequake, his final and most autobiographical novel, he replayed the death of his older brother, the last of his siblings to die. [Uhm, spoilers, I guess?] When Bernie Vonnegut died, his younger brother, Kurt, wrote:

I was the baby of the family. Now I don’t have anybody to show off for anymore.

That’s right, Kurt Vonnegut was the younger brother. The baby of the family. And yes, he was sad when the big brother he loved passed away. But he still made a joke, lest you think his penchant for black humor was impaired. He followed that paragraph with:

A woman who knew Bernie for only the last ten days of his life, in the hospice at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, describe his manners while dying as “courtly” and “elegant.” What a Brother!

What a language.

I think those three paragraphs do a very nice job of splitting that black humor/dark comedy atom. The first line on its own has a humorous bent, but I still cried when I read it. (Yep, and I had to put the book down for a moment to compose myself.) But the final two paragraphs brought me back. They’re still dark. They’re about death. And props to Vonnegut, there’s nobody who makes fun of death better than him. But those final three sentences, just two short paragraphs, left me smiling and if not happy, then no longer devastatingly sad. Just moderate sad. With a touch of laughter.

So, why does dark comedy appeal to us?

man in hazmat suit reading in a relaxed pose

I’m venturing into deeply un-funny territory here (as E.B. White points out in the quotation below), but I’m going to plow ahead because the nerd is strong within me.

But before I do, let’s recognize that taste is involved here. For example, I like dark chocolate. I really enjoy the bitterness with the sweet, and frankly, I think milk chocolate is gross. I mean, I’ll eat it, but if I get a choice then it’s gonna’ be dark chocolate. Put it in another way: I’m losing weight (again) and I’m not going to waste valuable calories on garbage chocolate.

There’s also a survival mechanism at work when it comes to dark humor, or gallows humor as it’s sometimes called. In occupations where workers frequently encounter death, dismemberment and other horrors, the response can seem quite macabre to those of us looking in from outside. But, it’s just a way to hold trauma at bay, to keep the horrific from overwhelming us.

It hangs on gallows humor

Gallows humor is well-recorded in history. Saint Lawrence was executed by the Romans in the heyday of excellent martyrdoms (like there are any bad martyrdoms); always inventive, the Romans put him on an iron grill over top of hot coals. After he’d been tortured for a bit, Saint Lawrence said: “This side is done – flip me over!” (He is the patron saint of chefs, cooks and comedians.)

Oscar Wilde, ever the wag, even when he was dying in a cheap boardinghouse, beats Saint Lawrence for wit if not bad-assery: “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.”

Where I don’t care for this kind of humor is when it is used by the powerful to mock their victims. But when it’s employed by a Wilde or a Vonnegut, the results are wonderful – funny and thoughtful at the same time. A taste of bitter with the sweet.

And if you do like this kind of humor, then you’ll be chuffed to know that an Austrian study linked enjoyment of dark comedy to high levels of intelligence (both verbal and nonverbal.) And interestingly, the group in the study that most appreciated black humor also had the lowest levels of aggression. So, even though this dark chocolate of the soul deals with violence, death and the macabre, its afficionados exhibit these tendencies less.

When you make a bleak joke in the mode of Saint Lawrence, it’s less likely that you are “sick” or “demented” than it is you are dealing with your anxiety in a healthy way. It’s a defense mechanism, baby. It means you’re well-adjusted!

At least that’s what you should tell people when they object.

And to finish, a few quotes on the topic: 

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.“–Kurt Vonnegut

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.””• Mel Brooks

“In a way, a lot of my humor comes from presenting things that are dramatic or shocking and then people not having socially appropriate responses, having people denying the drama by failing to react to it, and that’s a really classic form of humor.”
– Chuck Palahniuk 

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” –E.B. White

“Every country is like a particular type of person. America is like a belligerent, adolescent boy; Canada is like an intelligent, 35-year-old woman. Australia is like Jack Nicholson. It comes right up to you and laughs very hard in your face in a highly threatening and engaging manner.”  –Douglas Adams

If you’re still reading, you caught me. That final one has nothing to do with this topic. I just never get a chance to use it.

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Photo credits:

“Two hangman’s nooses and gallows behind the courthouse in Tombstone, Arizona (tombstone14xy)” by mlhradio is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

And thanks to cottonbro from Pexels for the (IMHO) hilarious pic of the guy reading in a hazmat suit.